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‘Killing’ the story: Lucy Letby, the media, and the courts

Lucy Letby. If you’re from the UK, you’ve likely heard that name many times over the last few years. Her arrest, trial, and sentencing were all widely published in tabloids, Twitter, and even the BBC. While there hasn’t been any comprehensive polling on what percentage of people in the UK believe that Letby is guilty, my impression is that many do. However, for those of us who aren’t from the UK, this case has remained somewhat unknown. While the Guardian has published over 100 stories about the case, the New York Times has only published 4. This is not unusual, since sensationalised cases in one country may not make much impact elsewhere. The trial provides a good opportunity to examine the media’s relationship with the courts and the damage it can cause to the judicial process. What makes the Letby case particularly interesting is the recent New Yorker article, which has challenged no only the basis of the case, but its representation in the media.

Lucy Letby was a neonatal nurse at the Countess of Chester Hospital from 2012 to 2016. Colleagues noticed a sharp increase in fatalities in the unit during 2015 and a pattern began to emerge indicating that Letby was present for many of the deaths of babies in the unit. After further investigation and multiple arrests and interrogations, Letby was charged with the murder and attempted murder of 18 babies in 2020. Her trial lasted almost a year, and after 22 days of deliberation, the jury returned a somewhat split decision, that was for the most part guilty. Recently, her claim for appeal was denied, and prosecutors are currently retrying her for one of the deaths in which the jury couldn’t reach a verdict. 

On its face, this seems like the whole picture of the case, but I’ve left one part out: the role of the media. As mentioned previously, This case has been covered extensively in the UK press. From Letby’s first arrest to every day of the trial, news outlets have covered every detail of the evidence against Letby, and the general public has reacted in kind. Even early on, the public consciousness of the UK seemed to decide that Letby was guilty. 

This is not an uncommon outcome for widely publicised cases. In our modern landscape of 24-hour news, social media sites allow everyone to publish every thought and form group opinions easier than ever. I personally don’t agree with this sensationalization of the court process, as I believe the justice system is not well designed to accommodate media outrage. Prosecutors who argue their case for a row of cameras rather than a row of jury members will necessarily erode the stringent rules and procedures meant to ensure the effective functioning of our justice system. Despite this, I acknowledge that the current media environment is not likely to go away anytime soon – good trials make good television. 

However, if we are going to have publicised trials – if news outlets are allowed to publish every detail of the court proceedings, arrest, and sentencing – then criticism of that process must be allowed as well. The New Yorker article I mentioned earlier is one such piece. The article suggests that the verdict against Letby may have been a miscarriage of justice. However, if you had searched for that article in the UK a few days ago, you’d have found nothing. The article was going to be blocked by a court order before being voluntarily removed for UK audiences by the publisher. In the UK, the media is not allowed to publish articles that could bias a jury in a criminal case, and the ongoing retrial of Letby counts as one such case. This isn’t an issue on its own. The problem is that the same gag order against the New Yorker did nothing to prevent articles like a recent piece in the BBC, which in its opening line stated that “child serial killer Lucy Letby” had been denied permission to appeal. For reference, the New York Times, in a similar piece, said, “The guilty verdict makes Ms. Letby the most prolific serial killer of children in modern British history.” The difference is subtle, but the implications are vast: it seems that much of the UK media phrases her guilt as an unassailable fact, now bolstered by her conviction and failed appeal. On the other hand, US media bases her guilt on the court’s verdict. This phrasing leaves the possibility open that her guilt is not guaranteed if the verdict was improper. There is no justification for why UK courts allow the BBC to discuss the case in this way while the New Yorker is not allowed to criticise the case in any way.

Media sensationalization of trials will always favour the prosecution. Just look at the roster of true crime podcasts to understand how much people enjoy hearing about the evil that their fellow citizens can commit. As a law student and someone who competed for years in mock trial competitions, this issue quickly becomes apparent because defence cases are usually complicated and not easily put into sound bites that can be widely circulated. Prosecutions, on the other hand, can be divided cleanly into means, motive, and opportunity. This system will frequently lead to headlines about horrible allegations that gain more traction, more clicks, leading to more people believing the prosecution unequivocally and ignoring the points of the defence.

This article is not an attempt to challenge the veracity of Letby’s verdict or to say that it was incorrect. The courts have made their decision, and despite powerful criticism from the New Yorker, that verdict has withstood an appeal. It should be considered legally sound, barring any exonerating evidence that could come to light. It is up to every person to decide for themselves whether the verdict in the case was just. However, there is no excuse, in a system that prides itself on open justice and free access to the courts, for blocking the publication of articles critical of the courts and their decisions.

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